We all reach places in life. Crossroads, turning points, junctures, choices, decisions – even Rubicon moments. For me, after nineteen years, I’ve reached a place of happiness and peace having come into the quiet of my heart. I feel settled. Life is simple, so I’m going with the ease and grace of that.
I’ve done a lot of letting go since I did some deep spiritual work earlier in the year. Relationships, patterns, behaviours, concepts, survivor’s guilt … the list goes on. We all release shit as our lives evolve, and it just so happens that this has been the year to let go of shit that just doesn’t serve me anymore.
Last night, I did a solar eclipse meditation where I anchored myself to the ground, and drew in the energy of the stars, the sun and the moon, and plugged into cosmos. This morning, I released it. I splintered it into a trillion pieces so that soft shards of love went to every human, animal and plant. Then I made myself a cup of tea, and sat in the garden; the sun at my back, the wind brushing my skin, and the hum of bees and the prattle of birds in the peach tree.
There was no rush. Just the warmth of the sun above me, a hot cuppa in my hands, and two dogs that came to greet me after their breakfast.
It’s hard to believe that as I write, this time nineteen years ago I was on life support in intensive care after having surgery for a double lung transplant. I very nearly croaked it, as my friend Nic would say, and over the years I’ve come far too close to dying more times than is comfortable.
Like last year, I’m going to mark this year’s Transplanniversary by having an otherwise ordinary day. There’ll be no celebration. Instead, there’ll be a silent commemoration for my donor and her family who I know are still grieving after nearly two decades. A family who will grieve for their daughter, sister, wife and friend until the end of time. That is something that is never lost on me. Not ever.
There’s so much grace and wonder in the every day, and we forget that it’s even there. We’re all guilty – focusing on shit that shouldn’t concern us, like what people think of us, our beliefs and values, how we look, how we should act, how to go about our business, life, relationships.
The older you get, the less attention you dedicate to what others think about how you should be living your life. You only get one, so my hard won advice is to gather yourself up and find the marvellous in the mundane (for some strange reason, doing laundry brings me unparalleled joy), and revel in the fact that after all these years, Dr. Seuss is still right – ‘today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer that You’.
So go and grab your beautiful, messy life by the vagina (they’re far more resilient than balls), and shape it into something you’d be proud to look back on either at the end of the day, or at the end of your life. In the end, the only thing that matters is the love you give, the love you share, and the love you get back. Oh, and be kind, compassionate and do your best to help other people. That’s the secret to true happiness. You can thank me later.
Someone I’ve known just shy of twenty years said something to me back in September, and I’ve been ruminating over it as I approach my fortieth birthday. We were talking about our inner voice. You know, about what we say to our selves in the quiet of our hearts; the things we think, but keep to ourselves – that internal existential screaming (I know I’m not the only one). I’ve always had a contentious relationship with this person for various reasons, but we’re older now. Time has passed and there are children, and far bigger things than just us. She said she hadn’t changed much at all – that she still just blurts what comes out of her mouth without too much thought.
‘I have no inner voice,’ she laughed. ‘You never had one, but you’ve changed,’ she said. ‘You’re not like you were at all.’
‘I should hope not,’ I replied, smiling as I bounced her beautifully chubby baby in my lap.
I laughed it off with some friends later, although a couple of them were a little affronted on my behalf. Being offended was the last thing I felt. For me, it was like the linchpin of this year, because it anchored and grounded me in both spirit and purpose. I’m really fucking relieved I’m not the same person I was eighteen years ago, although …
From the outside, I’m so far removed from ‘who’ I was, or what I embodied. Certainly, I’m not as loud or as shut the fuck up ready to roll at any given moment, as is evidenced by the photos above. I was never one to take no for an answer, I would introspect and rage in equal measure, I’d rarely walk away from a situation without a fight, and if someone said I couldn’t do something, I damn well did it. It was never about ‘winning’ – it was about being heard. I learned from a very young age that growing up with a terminal illness like Cystic Fibrosis, I was either going to sink or swim.
I’m talking about what us old skool CFer’s call the ‘good old days’, when we had no mother to keep us safe at night in hospital when things like IV’s and naso-gastric tubes failed. Where any old doctor could waltz in in the middle of the night and have you held down with excessive force as they tried to access a vein. It was brutal. Parents couldn’t just decide to stay the night beside their child because it was never an option. It’s only very recently made sense that my first visual memories are of steel bars, as if looking through a jail cell. That’s how hospital cots were designed, but that’s a story for another time. So sink or swim, I found my voice very early and was quite the ham (conservative statement).
You see, the voice I was born with – my literal voice – was a gift, a weapon and my currency. It was how I steered myself in the world and was often my greatest ally. It was always with me. It didn’t matter where I was – I could use it, and use it I did. I could sing delicately and brutally, create incredible sounds and boom over all and sundry. I had twenty-one years with that voice, and when I woke up after my transplant, it was laying paralysed across my larynx in a state of eternal dysphonia.
I’d lost my gift, my weapon, my currency, and what I believed was my essence. Who was this squeaky woman so afraid to speak in case the wrong noise slipped out? Over the years I’ve buttressed myself against the world without it, and while I could say it’s taken me time to realise that my fractured voice was just a metaphor for life, that seems so trite and platitudinous, because we are all so much bigger than that.
I still sing every day. Some days I squeak like a pre-pubescent boy, and some days I can belt out a sound akin to a finalist on The Voice for very brief periods of time. I’ve learned to embrace the mystery, because singing with one vocal cord can be tricky.
Every year, my best friend and I go and see Deva Premal, Miten and Manose, where we sing, chant, laugh, cry, hold hands with people we don’t know, and connect. In February, I joined Deva Premal and a room full of strangers on a three day chanting retreat – all of whom I ended up praying with, hugging, eating with, and singing to. I re-engaged with my voice and felt connected to something tangible from what actually is a lifetime ago. On the first afternoon, my mind was filled with picture perfect captures of my pre-transplant life. It was like a Vipassana of my voice, where every moment played on a loop in my head.
I remembered competing and winning eisteddfods for primary school choir and vocal group, winning drama prizes in high school, and when I sang in the school musicals. The fun I had, the friends I made and still have, and the music director of one of Brisbane’s best GPS boys’ schools stopping me mid-song to ask if I’d sing in his jazz band. His well known jazz band, at that. I wish I could have, but in senior year, I was in survival mode with study and sickness and death.
I thought about when I was offered a coveted place in the acting strand straight after my audition for my drama degree, but was in full possession of the knowledge that my health was declining and was never going to get better. The acting strand was voice and movement oriented, and the physicality it would have demanded in such a small collective of students meant that I would have needed to not be sick. I didn’t want to let anyone down, so I politely declined and instead enrolled in the ‘open’ strand with most of the other drama students. I declined not because I couldn’t do it, but because I made a conscious choice not to start something I couldn’t finish. Did I ever resent my illness? Did I ever look at that elite group of actors and think ‘that could have been me?’ Of course I did, but I’ve never had a case of terminal pissed-off ness. I focused on what I could do, instead of what I couldn’t. In some strange, yet pernicious way, I turned my attention to more academic pursuits and did very well.
So while I meditated and seemingly went back in time on the first day of the retreat, I felt a towering shift where I was able to finally let go of my voice. I cried, my body moving like a metronome, ticking from side to side, and for the next two days, I was immersed in a space of love, support and devotion (and vegan food – nothing’s perfect, after all).
Was this a broken piece of me on it’s way to healing? It was not. As I’ve already alluded to, by the time my left vocal cord was paralysed, my life as I had known it was already over, and another that had been waiting for me was busy being born. A person is not and cannot ever be the same when they’ve experienced something as profound as a transplant. It’s like a one-sided exchange and a permanent declaration of gratitude. A debt you can never repay, except in compassionate actions, kindness and love.
I used to think that there was a redundant, unloveable, unusable piece of me that would be strung across my throat forever, taunting me. Like a silent bell that won’t peal when it’s rung. I now find comfort that there’s a fleshy piece of the ‘old’ me that sits there dead, making me brittle of voice. When I speak (or squeak), I have to think about how I’m going to hold my head so the sound comes out. A lot of people think I’m down with the lurgy, so that’s something that’s never changed – it’s just not my lungs anymore, thankfully.
Was losing my voice a blessing? Oh, yes. But more than anything, it was a powerful lesson in economy and expansion. Economy of words, sound, emotion, and so many other things. Expansion in compassion, empathy, love, self-awareness, and purpose.
Most of my fellow chanters said they’d be back next year, but I knew that I wouldn’t be. I walked into that hall with no expectations, but left with what I needed and more. Three days of memory tripping, chanting and emerging into the quiet heart of my mind, and I was full. This year has been one hell of a lesson – an awakening, if you will. I perhaps Some people have called it a fucked year, but with what I’ve learned about myself and other humans – the good and not so good – I wouldn’t swap that for anything. Three years drug-free, one year off opiate-antagonist therapy, and I am FLYING.
Yesterday I turned thirty-nine – a stage of life I never thought I would or could ever reach from when I was was a little girl, to when I had my transplant and certainly after I survived cancer. Each year is such a gift, and age is a privilege.
Lungs in perfect working order for seventeen years? √
Cancer in remission for eight years? √
Two years clean? √
Haven’t lost my mind? √
Yesterday I made the drive down to my friend Nic’s farm after I’d caught up with my folks – the people who have helped shaped me into the person I am today. I love them SO HARD.
Once I got to the farm, an overwhelming sense of peace washed over me until Bert and Harry (N & B’s dog sons) greeted me with whipping tails, over eager paws and a whole lot of tongue. We celebrated my birthday and it was an afternoon and evening of oodles of love, laughter, joy, amazing gifts and spectacular food. In four words? It filled my cup.
I felt full. My soul was full. My belly was full. My spirit was full. Nic and Ben remember when I was stuck in that cycle of addiction, and now to see me free, happy and awake – truly awake – makes them feel pretty damn proud.
Last night, Nic gave me my gratitude stone for the year – a beautiful brecciated or ‘poppy’ jasper which will serve to protect and ground me for the year ahead, because according to Nic, it’s going to be a big one, and I am ready to shine like a fucking diamond.
My gratitude stone is mine and mine only and it is strikingly beautiful. At first I had mixed feelings because I’m not an avid fan of red, but with its base colour of deep rust which reminds me of the outback, and the gentle swirls of pink, cream, black and grey, I ventured inside this stone today during a meditation and it was a place of safety, healing and spiritual refuge. And rainbows! And we all know rainbows fucking rock.
So why am I telling you about this? You see, Nicole has created a planner called the ‘Year of Me Planner’. Now, whether that’s manifesting energy, magical engagements or masterpiece enactment (all Nic’s words), it’s your opportunity to make the most of the energies of 2016.
I was lucky enough to receive the year long online course and planner to the ‘Year of Me’ from Nic for my birthday, and I just about hyperventilated with excitement. I’ve been working on it most of today and it has soothed my soul. The Year of Me Planner allows you to create your own map to connect to your intuition, intentions, power and purpose. Sounds a bit hippie? Whatever! I’m excited that it’s a little witchy and really fucking sensible. Here are the tools I’m using for 2016 … That’s right – oracle cards! I’m a hippie from way back …
Nicole created this planner because she wants to help people plan, create and achieve their dreams with passion and precision. A one year online membership means that you’re part of a supportive online community with Nicole at the helm. It’s a beautiful safe space, and what people have shared today has been quite heartening and a little emotional. It’s only day one, and I’m feeling ALL THE THINGS. So here’s the link to her website and the Year of Me Planner. DO IT.
I made a big decision yesterday. I decided that I no longer need my opiate antagonist therapy. I had planned to stop on my birthday, which just happens to fall on New Year’s Eve, but I’ve been feeling so happy and settled that I knew I could do it. And so I did. The ‘high’ from not having to take the bitter pills I’ve been placing under my tongue for two years was unexpectedly immense. I felt as though I could scale a mountain. I danced and howled at the fireworks that are barnstorming the sky every night before Christmas.
But then the night’s hands stretched towards midnight, and I toddled off to bed where the inevitable withdrawal symptoms began to kick in. I was hot, then freezing cold. I had restless legs and my arms were flailing uncontrollably, so I clamped them shut between my thighs and dealt with it. Because that’s what you do when you make a choice.
I woke up early this morning feeling like I could swoop into the sky with those long gone fireworks, but now I’m a little tired simply because I’m functioning on very little sleep. I don’t know how long these side effects will last – maybe a few days or longer – but they beat being reliant on any substance EVERY FUCKING TIME. I ate a hearty breakfast, downed a legal addictive stimulant coffee and with my full belly and happy heart, I thought I would sleep, but I’m feeling so free and alert that I had to write.
The last two years I’ve been on Buprenorphine have been some of the most memorable and active, simply because I wasn’t wasting my life getting high and sleeping my life away. I got shit done – lots of it – and last year was an incredible year that presented me with some life changing opportunities. This year has been a little more sedate, but just as fulfilling, if not more.
A couple of weeks ago, I had my last appointment with my addiction specialist and we decided that I would stop taking the ‘bupe’ on my birthday so I could start the New Year clean and fresh as a daisy. I won’t go into the specifics of my final appointment, but it was rich with poignancy. I will miss my doctor’s wisdom and his ability to be transparent with the realities about my state of addiction. He has been such a source of encouragement, and when I last saw him, we hugged and exchanged kind words. He also gave me a beautiful healing stone which I’ve added to my mineral collection (or crystals, if you want to call them that).
After ruminating about the supportive relationship with my addiction specialist, I realised that I had met one of the finest doctors who had ever treated me, and I’ve met hundreds – maybe thousands – of doctors. I’ve met doctors who shouldn’t be doctors, but this man genuinely knows how to care for his patients. He knows that their – our – lives are in his hands. He was one of the very few people I trusted to show my TEDx talk to prior to speaking on the day, and he had nothing but lashings of encouragement and praise. He’s the kind of doctor and human being you want as your doctor. He was in my corner from the start and I couldn’t have done it without him. Behold the healing stone …
Peace. Joy. Liberation. THAT is how I am feeling today, and how I will continue to feel even through the flailing limbs and mad body temperature fluctuations. I will hold that feeling of pride close to me and that is how I will get through, because there is no other way.
I’m excited about a whole gamut of stuff right now, but I’m mostly excited that I can turn that bloody alarm off my phone that used to remind me to ‘dose’ at four-thirty every afternoon. No more alarms. No more bitter pills. No more lining up at the junkie counter at the chemist to be ‘dosed’.
I get to enjoy Christmas with my loved ones with no attachments, and while last year may be tough to beat (I had my sister back, and my parents, her and I danced the night away), I’m not out to break records. I’m here to live, love, be loved and give. It really is that simple. Yes, there have been deep feelings of shame I can attribute to my drug use (and lining up at the junkie counter), but like the scars on my body that whisper to me that I am a warrior, I’m more than happy to share my stories of how I have seemingly conquered my addiction to narcotics.
Now this may or may not interest you, but I’ve been reading a lot of peer reviewed papers and first hand experiences of how psychedelics are used in addiction therapy and to heighten spirituality with the dying. I’m more invested in how psychedelics are used with the dying, and while I wouldn’t do it myself due to the risks to cognitive function and the potential psychiatric issues, I’d probably give it a go if I was at the end of my life. While the potential for dependency is very low, what a ride it would be. Now have a look at this diagram:
I don’t do alcohol, nicotine and my intake of coffee these days is practically non-existent in comparison to what I used to consume. Prior to transplant, apart from morphine, I would continuously suck on nitrous oxide (Entonox) when physiotherapy became too painful. It helped, but it can cause bleeding, so I was closely monitored and as such never had physio again due to uncontrollable pain. When I was dying, all that mattered was that I was comfortable from both a physical and spiritual standpoint.
Now take a look at where Psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’), LSD and Mescaline are on the chart. Very low in dependency. It never seemed to hurt Jack Kerouac or Sir Ginsberg and their prolific writing. Until it did. A slew of writers ‘graduated’ to speed, benzodiazepines – and the rest – which inevitably lead to this: ‘Kerouac took so much amphetamine when he first discovered the inhaler high that he lost most of his hair and his legs swelled up with thrombophlebitis.’ Not sexy at all. So while it aided their art for a while, it swallowed them whole and Kerouac was dead at the age of 47. I am eight years away from 47 and do not want to die, so to think I was addicted to narcotics like morphine and pethidine horrifies me, because after heroin, they’re at the top of the list with both dependence and morbidity. Pentobarbital (often marketed as Nembutal) is right up there, too. Nembutal is the choice drug for euthanasia, and cocaine is not far behind.
I’ve spoken at length with friends who have tried all manner of substances over the years: ecstasy, methamphetamine, mescaline and LSD, heroin, morphine, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. That’s right – alcohol is also on the list with a level of high morbidity too. Is this a cautionary tale about drugs? Perhaps.
So enough of the horror for me. Instead, I am going to try to not be horrified with how close I came to death when I was using, but will tap into the subtleties of that emotion when I need to feel proud. Did I win the fight against drugs? Did I win the fight against CF and cancer? Not quite, and for a couple of reasons. I’ve never particularly liked or understood the militarisation of illness or death, and I don’t plan on using that model for how I got through my addiction. I GOT THROUGH IT. And I got through it with support, love, the right medication, meditation, music, writing and fuck off stubbornness. I can’t say that I single handedly came through the other side without help, but I did most of the work myself because I’m not one to ‘lean in’ – I never have been.
Having an addiction specialist and a supportive family was one thing and while I only told a handful of my closest friends, they knew from day one that the only way I get through the really tough shit is on my own. I attribute that to spending so much time alone in hospital once my Mum had to leave so she could love and look after my sister and my Dad. Being alone gives you a tremendous sense of temerity and independence, as well as an imagination to rival Tolkein (although I was never going to be as crafty as he was – not even close).
I’ve never been codependent on another person, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. More often than not, I’ve reasoned that it’s for the best because I’ve always wagered that I will live the rest of my life alone. Except that I’m not. I want to thank everyone for letting me just be. For still loving me. For asking how I’m going. For always asking and accepting that wherever I am, no matter what may be happening, ‘I’m fine, thank you’, even when I’m not.
Endnote: this is what I strutted – really strutted and danced – around the house to last night. Because I’m feeling good.
Earlier in the week, someone asked me what I’ve been up to. ‘Reading, writing, stuff …’ But mainly reading and writing, hanging out with my sister and my nephews, working, planning, walking and dreaming. It’s true – I’m an abject failure of a social butterfly, although I did actually go OUT Friday night to the opening of Brisbane’s The Soul Pantry – a fabulous florist in Newmarket you should visit if you live in Brisbane. I mean: TERRARIUMS. I am obsessed. Such a granny.
It’s my favourite time of year. Yes, I love Christmas and will be trimming my tree (and the rest) this weekend, but it’s summer that truly has my heart. I had a passionate relationship with summer in my youth – days of water-skiing, inner tubing and swimming at my home on the Brisbane river; meditating on the pontoon at water level, and slathering coconut oil on my body to bake myself like a ham.
But then I had my transplant which meant no sun. Or, I could have sun, but with a family history of melanoma, my immunosuppression and my wish for eternal youth, I literally took shelter and have been alabaster ever since. It took about fourteen years for me to re-embrace summer and over the last couple of years, I’ve rebooted my brain and learned to adore what I call my ‘Summers of Love’ once again.
This calls for the following:
A new swimsuit and rashie √
Bebel and João Gilberto on repeat √ (and Enya – don’t judge me. Did you know she has a new album?) √
The radio tuned to ABC classic FM √
Naked cooking, naked dancing, naked writing. Okay – just entire days spent totally naked √
Admiring the lights of the city – sometimes with clothes on – hoping no one has binoculars trained in my direction √
Writing on my balcony, watching and listening to the birds flying just out of my reach while the sun sinks behind the mountains √
Clandestinely skinny dipping in the pewl come twilight √
Mangoes, mangoes, mangoes √
Sunscreen. All day, every day √
Make friends with salad. Yeah, not convinced unless it’s covered in five types of cheese.
And so that is my glamorous life. I got all of the stuff I love and adapted it to my post-transplant, no sun life. November has been a pretty sedate month, and December is looking distinctly unremarkable. But I like unremarkable and ordinary and as much as I’d love to be in Barcy now, that trip will have to wait until another time.
My novel (set in the outback in the early 70s) is coming along (1200 words today – take that, Hemingway), an epic and covert poetry project is beginning to take shape and I’m working on a short story. I never write short stories, but the last one received a great review in the Sydney Morning Herald, so this in itself is miraculous.
I turn 39 on New Years Eve, and as with every birthday, I have no idea what I’m doing. Big changes can happen between now and then, but I seem to always escape to the country for my birthday. Last year, I spent a very sedate birthday at my folks beach house at Mooloolaba, and the two years before that, I stayed at my friend Nic’s farm in the hinterland of Byron Bay where we did we got our witch on and burned shit. Going by the year 2014 turned out to be, I can say that burning shit GETS SHIT DONE. I highly recommend it #manifestinglikeamofo
I’ve never spent a NYE at my place in the city and don’t know if I ever will. I feel in limbo with its frenetic pace – almost as though I’m shackled – whereas out ‘there’, whether it be Barcy or the farm or the beach, I am unencumbered and free.
Waking up in the quiet of dawn and going for a surf on the first morning of a new year is such a gift. There’s nothing that quite matches its intensity or sense of calm. Bobbing in the ocean for while, eating a solid brekkie, sinking into a good book, doing some writing of my own and going for a wander is my ideal. Simple, yet ideal.
But first I have get through Christmas, which isn’t to say that I ‘endure’ the festive season. Quite the opposite, in fact. I love getting my yule on and buying gifts for my nearest and dearest. I’m in full blown love with my new baking fruitcake tradition to the point where I’ve now had my fruit mix soaking in rum for ten days. When the weather cools down, I’ll bake.
As I type, it is 6.27pm. Cicadas embroider the air which will forever take me back to the vipassana I did in 2013. There’s the odd siren, barking dog and the bristle of leaves in the evening wind.
Over the next couple of weeks, my opiate antagonist therapy will whittle down to zero, so I’ve been thinking of how I can celebrate this milestone. I don’t drink, so I’ll most likely keep things unremarkable and ordinary, write down some words and walk along the river. I’ll open my arms up to the world like the protagonist in my novel did today and feel the salt building on my skin. Salt is something I’m quite fascinated by, and not just because it grows in little mounds on my skin in summer that I can season my fish and chips with.
While I have a humanities brain, I find the chemical breakdown of salt fascinating and beautiful. On their own, sodium and chloride are highly toxic. But when they come together, they create something really special. Salt is stable, non-reactive and compatible with life. Salt gets a lot of bad press, but on a hot day like today, I’ve gobbled down no less than fifteen salt tablets because I lose excessive amounts through my skin as a CF’er. Where you might have to cut salt out of your diet, I can dump it on my food in excessive quantities. Without it I become hyponatremic which can be fatal, but that’s enough histrionics for today.
Being able to be completely free of Suboxone is going to be absolute freedom. I’ve not had one craving for anything drug related since I started on the therapy in 2013, and that alone lends me a steady strength. Back when I first started lining up at the chemist at the junkie counter, I knew I had my addiction cornered. There wasn’t a part of me that didn’t want to be free from the slavery that is addiction and I knew that I would get here. How did I know? Because once I make my mind up about something, I get it done. Whether that’s being stubborn or just being really fucking determined, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a potent mix of both. Knowing I had this beat from day one was essential for my recovery, and the day I take my last dose may be unremarkable and ordinary, but as I’ve always maintained, there is great beauty in the ordinary. Even when you can’t see it, it is everywhere. If you don’t go in search of magic, love or anything else you want in life, you will never find it. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi is deeply rooted in revering nature, the everyday and its imperfections. It’s a state of heightened consciousness where there is beauty hidden in how you experience the world in its state of constant transience. The Buddhists were really onto something with their reverence for impermanence, so I urge you to embrace your wabi-sabi. If that’s not enough, then maybe some Roald Dahl will do the trick:
‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’
Yesterday was all about disconnection. After having another high-ish white cell count and another blood result that can be indicative of infection, rejection (it’s not rejection) or inflammation, my IV antibiotics were ceased because I’ve pretty much had all my body can take. Because it’s been two weeks, my CV line also had to be pulled. After two weeks they’re a high infection risk and the last thing I need is an infection in my heart. As you will see in the photo below, the site was starting to look quite red and angry, so I’m more than happy that it’s laying somewhere in medical waste. Although I’m still quite tired, I’m fairly sure it’s been the antibiotics that have been making me so dreadfully ill so I’m hoping to be firing on all cylinders by next week. I’m half tempted to go to the Ekka – a place I haven’t been since before my transplant. I have this craving to be unnerved and shaken back into life by something that spins me upside down. I need to do something unnerving – and soon.
Here’s the catheter that was inside my jug-jug-jugular for two weeks. See the gunk? Eww.
And here is my neck after my transplant nurse Margaret cut the stitches free and pulled out the line. It’s a little tender, and today there’s some bruising with my neck looking as though I’ve come off second best in a tussle with Edward from Twatlight.
The first thing I did when I got home was have a long, hot shower. It was neck-gasmic. But ever since Sunday, I’ve been thinking about my friend Sean because Sunday marked a year since he died. I felt his presence all day – even before it registered that it was the anniversary of his death. I wrote about the sacred time I got to spend with Sean just before he died here.
As the Kurt Vonnegut refrain flies, ‘so it goes’ … It will be seventeen years since my transplant on the twenty-second of this month. August is a time that is always tinged with a soupy mix of gratitude, survivors guilt and reluctant celebration. The transplant experience is confounding in its conflux of emotion, though my mind feels so indelibly clear right now. My motivations have this seemingly robust lucidity about them because there is so much essence of spirit that’s driving my lived experience.
But strands of thoughts loop across to my donor who I know was and is, always will be a girl in her early twenties. I know her age and how she died. I am not supposed to know, but I do.
Because we were so close in age, I find myself mulling over what she may have been doing this time seventeen years ago. Was she studying? Was she working? Was she happy? Was she listening to Jeff Buckley over and over like I was? What book was she reading, if any at all? Was she in love? Was she in that good, hard, impenetrable love I was in all those years ago? Had she fought with anyone? Was this day – today – a good day for her?
I will always wonder. You cannot have another persons lungs inside you and not be wild with curiosity and a little restlessness. I read about cellular transference and memory, and meditate about her family who I know selflessly donated all of their daughter’s organs. I wonder about how many of us are still left walking around with a piece of this girl inside of us? I’ll always be grateful, but I’ll always feel the familiar pull of sadness. If I didn’t, I’d question my own humanity. There is a storm about to roll across the city, so here is a collection of words I wrote long ago about what it’s like to ‘get the call’.
The night before transplant is …
bittersweet, pallid, rainy, painful and skittish
fearful and scattered from misplaced thoughts and morphine
full of heavy hearts and high hopes
stung by drunk boys and crying girls
the irony of chain smoking friends/father/sister
being hugged so tight by Tammy it hurts
stern faces, etched with what may not come to pass
red lights that have been run in the rush to get to the hospital
thinking about dying on the table
asking my parents and my sister about my donor and their family: who is it/is it a boy or a girl/ how old are they/what happened/why are they brain dead/will I ever know?
stained by paradox
never far from my mind
saying goodbye with the hope of saying ‘hello, I love you’
I wrote this last year sitting in Adelaide airport just after I’d attended the Spiritual Care Australia conference. The next conference is in Tasmania and I’m sad that I’m missing it, but I have a full calendar to tend to. This post concerns the value of compassionate listening and how we can serve the dying – and the living – better by really being able to hear what people are saying.
After three days of extending my practice as a spiritual carer at the Spiritual Care Australia conference in Adelaide, my vocation really is all about LISTENING. Not listening in a one-dimensional or perfunctory way, but really listening. I like to call it active or compassionate listening.
Tenzin Chodron from Karuna Hospice gave a rousing speech yesterday. The energy in the room was palpable after she lead us through a gentle meditation, and continued to enthral delegates when she spoke about her Buddhist model of spiritual care and about some of her intimate experiences with the dying. I’ve been lucky enough to have studied under Chodron through Karuna as part of my ‘Spiritual Care with the Dying’ training, and compassionate listening is a skill I honed during my training. During both courses, the group did a listening exercise. We were partnered off where we had to actively listen for ten minutes to our partner without saying a word. No interruptions, no ‘me too’. We then swapped places so that the other person could speak.
It’s amazing how much you can really hear when you’re fully engaged with another person. Once the exercise was over, we discussed the listening activity and how it facilitated truelistening, because when we think we’re listening to the person in front of us, are we ever fully engaged with that person and what they are saying? I would have to say that no, we’re not. But we can be.
From then on, whenever I have had to speak with someone as a fully engaged listener, I do a small meditation before I literally step or place myself into the conversation. This is also how I prepare when I’m about to speak with people who are sick or dying, which translates to me that there needs to bea quality of presence.
Clear the mind, set your intention and be almost hyper-attuned. I truly believe that by not listening properly we are failing the sick and dying.
It never ceases to surprise me what comes up for people who are dying. But as with speaking, there needs to be a greater respect for silence. Ofttimes, that is all the person can do until they know what they do want to speak about, or if they want to speak at all.
There are many ways in which we fail the dying. While palliative care nurses, spiritual carers, doctors and other practitioners recognise that suffering affects a person’s spirit, it is common for doctors who are not specialised in palliative care to treat people as just ‘a body in a bed.’ I’ve experienced this first hand, particular when I transitioned to an adult hospital. Everyone – patient or not – is more than the sum of their parts.
In Canberra, there is a much more holistic approach in palliative care medicine. Existential and spiritual suffering often manifests as physical pain, and I have heard stories that once this pain has been addressed, the need for morphine and other pain relief is lessened – particularly at night. This resonates with me because I’ve been to that place and I know that night time is both figuratively and literally the darkest of times where every layer of pain and suffering surfaces and is amplified tenfold. I’d be interested to know if you have had any ‘dark nights of the soul’.
As a spiritual carer, this interests me greatly. What’s more, it offers irrefutable proof that in order to fully understand other peoples pain and suffering, we must first recognise what kind of pain a person is in – emotionally, existentially, physically and spiritually. While pain relieving drugs are almost always necessary in palliative care, there’s evidence to suggest that the use of morphine and its ilk can mask spiritual pain. I have heard stories of many people who are dying who have refused pain relief so they could just BE. They wanted to experience dying in its infinite form and to be present. That takes momentous courage which the dying seem to have in spades.
The day before I flew to Adelaide for the conference, I was lucky enough to do a Death Midwifery workshop with Dr. Michael Barbato. During the workshop, Michael discussed these issues as well as quality of care, the evolution of spiritual care, and midwifeing the self, which is something I will address as another tool of my trade in another post. One of the last things Michael shared with us was a mantra for the living and the dying which I will leave you with as I sit at my desk on this early evening.